April 07, 2020

Conservation, industry groups back budget increase for public advocate

AUGUSTA — Representatives of conservation, low-income, senior citizen, industry and other groups on Wednesday urged a panel of lawmakers to support a funding increase of $400,000 for the Office of the Public Advocate.

Officials of some groups, including the Coalition For Sensible Energy and the Industrial Energy Consumers Group, suggested a budget increase larger than the $400,000 requested by Public Advocate Stephen G. Ward.

“Don’t just give them what they asked for, give them what they need,” said Tony Buxton of the Industrial Energy. He said he also supports the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s funding request of $635,000 in additional money and its request to keep its $600,000 balance.

“More needs to be done to educate the Maine public on electric choices, telephone choices, natural gas and nuclear plant decommissioning issues. We recommend the OPA’s budget be increased by $480,000,” said Pam Person, vice chairwoman of the Coalition For Sensible Energy. She said the Office of the Public Advocate was one of Maine’s best ratepayer-taxpayer buys. “We have gotten their costs back in saved rates,” she said.

As part of the agency’s annual program review before the Legislature’s Utilities and Energy Committee, Ward presented a report on the agency and requested its current $649,336 budget be increased by $400,000.

The public advocate told lawmakers the agency needed more money to pay for costs associated with a number of pending issues, such as electric deregulation and the early shutdown of Maine Yankee, which came up after budgets were approved last March. He said he needed more funding to pay for expert witnesses, such as accountants and engineers.

Although lawmakers approve the budget for the Office of the Public Advocate, it is not funded from state tax dollars. The agency’s funding comes from the assessments it charges regulated utilities, such as water, electric and telephone companies, which in turn are paid by the various ratepayers across the state. Regulated electric companies pay the largest portion of agency’s budget, about 66 percent.

Ward, who has been the state’s public advocate for the past 12 years, says the cost to ratepayers to fund the agency’s $649,336 budget is about 5.8 cents a month for a $100 utility bill. He says the increased funding won’t affect ratepayers unless utilities file for rate increases, and if they do, the increase would be minimal, at most a few pennies a month.

Sen. Philip E. Harriman, D-Yarmouth, a member of the legislative committee, says he remembers asking either PUC officials or Ward whether they would need more financial resources during last year’s debate about electric deregulation. “The answer was no. Here we are six months later and the ratepayers of Maine are being asked to come up with close to $2 million in their rates,” Harriman said. “It seems like a lot of reregulation to get ready for deregulation.”

Ward said he did not recall saying his agency could get by with its budget. The advocate said the effect on a consumer of a $2 million or $3 million increase would be less than a dime a month for a customer who pays a $100 utility bill.

Since the Office the Public Advocate was created in 1982, Ward says, it has saved Maine utility ratepayers at least $76 million. “For every dollar spent in our budget there has been $10 in savings on the rates,” he said.

Ward listed some future plans which he said would make his office accountable to the public.

By July 1, 2000, he said, the agency would show a measurable improvement in the cost and quality of utility services in Maine by: reducing the difference in energy costs between Maine and the United States from the 11.5 percent in 1993 to 10 percent; reducing the cost of a five-minute, in-state, long-distance telephone call which is currently 62 percent higher the national median to within 10 percent of the national median; and increasing the number of residential households that have telephone service from 96 percent to 98 percent.

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